Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Heavens Above

Full moon in New South Wales, Australia (photo G. Dowling)

Do you ever stand outside on a clear night and revel at the beauty and majesty of the heavens?  I do-- just as often as I can.  I admit it: I’m addicted to the night sky.  I think I always have been.

As a child I would often drag my sleeping bag and pillow out onto the lawn and lie under the stars, captivated by the panorama above.  I would stare at the bit of universe that was visible to my naked eye and which extended from one edge of the clearing to the other. The Milky Way, its glimmering wide band extending beyond my scope, seemed to me a living thing.  I knew I was a part of it and yet…it was up there, and I was down here.  How could that be? 

When I was very young I believed that falling stars were an unusual occurrence and someone told me that each one signified the death of a person on our planet.  For a seven year old, that was a frightening thought.  Death was ‘bad’, wasn’t it?  And very sad?  One night as I snuggled on the top bunk in the bedroom I shared with my older sister, I saw a star shoot across the horizon and wink out.  Just like that.  Blazing, swift, full of energy and light, and then… gone.

“Someone just died.”  My voice disrupted the stillness of our room.

“Someone dies every second, Karen,” was the response from below.  She was my big sister.  She must know what she was talking about.  Her words didn’t bring me comfort, for I wondered how long it would be before a falling star signified the death of someone I loved.

Years later, lying in a warm sleeping bag and watching the glittering light show above, I realized that shooting stars no longer caused me worry.  Instead, they gave me solace.  If they indicated sentient beings who had taken their leave of the earth, what better way to memorialize them?  I’d believed that falling stars were a rarity when my viewing screen was a small window overlooking the woods, but my night-time sojourns taught me that there were dozens of meteorites to be seen on any given night when the cosmos was spread out before me.  I began to view the busy night sky as a global celebration of life and I would try to picture the faces of those who were being honored in the heavens.

I grew to know the constellations by sight and I knew where they could be found on any given night.  Convinced our planet was the center of the universe, I believed that the stars marched in perfect synchronization…evening to dawn and season to season.   They were always where they were ‘supposed’ to be and that fact provided a young girl with a feeling of stability.  There weren’t many things I was sure of, but the night sky was a ‘definite’.  My parents loved me-- and the heavens moved with predictability. Those two things I knew.

The night sky has changed in the forty years since I first saw a falling star.  In my youth, the blinking lights of a jet plane flying overhead were a sight more rare than those bits of burning rock falling through the atmosphere.  An airplane’s red and green beacons provided interest and a brief focal point but they were an intrusion, especially when the sounds they made caught up with the sights they provided.  Satellites were also uncommon.  Now, man-made luster often seems to dominate the radiance of those natural luminaries that have flecked the firmament since time began.

Now, too, there is light pollution; another threat to the natural beauty that has kept mortals enthralled and gazing aloft for generation upon generation.  Even in our rural corner of Maine, we see its impacts and experience nostalgia for those nights when the sky was unblemished by man. 
Full moon setting over Mt. Abram, Maine (K. Pease photo, taken from my bedroom window)

Nonetheless, I remain devoted to looking at the heavens.  My moods vary with the waxing and waning of the moon.  Aurora Borealis, those Northern Lights which shimmer and dance in greens and yellows on the horizon, never fail to leave me breathless.  A meteor shower is cause to wake my children and take them, sleepy-eyed, from their rooms to the front steps so that they can glory in a performance which costs nothing to watch but which provides more romance, thrills and majesty than anything seen on a synthetic ‘big screen’.  A lunar eclipse takes precedence over sleep, too.  And comets?  Even as a grown woman I’ve been known to sleep upside down on my bed so that I could go to sleep watching their fluctuating glow through my skylight.

Yes, I love the night sky.  It puts life in a breathtaking, awe-inspiring way. 


  1. One of the great ironies in our world is that even though mankind has the ability to explore space and — with the aid of telescopes, radio frequencies and light — has been able to study distant galaxies in some detail, the one galaxy we have not been able to observe completely is our own Milky Way. This is because we are positioned within it in such a manner as to be unable to see it completely at one time.

    And perhaps that's indicative of the Human Condition in general: Ignore what's within because it's not what we wish to see or it's just too hard, and instead concentrate on those things that are beyond our reach, ignoring in the process just how minuscule this shows us to be.

    For mine, when I look at the night sky, I'm awed and humbled at the immensity, and I'm reminded of just how tiny my part of the unverse really is. To be unable to look up and see the heavens would be the spiritual equivalent of denying water to a thirsty man.

    Yet again another reason for you to visit Australia. Ther are so many places here where you can see the night sky unblemished.

    Live long and prosper.

  2. Och... such a thoughtful comment leaves me a bit breathless. (You're a great writer, CP. Truly.)

    Oz is on my Bucket List. I only have to concentrate on not kicking it (the bucket, of course) before I can check it off. :o)

    I'm very much looking forward to seeing constellations I've never seen before.

    Thanks, my friend.